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Did Spike Lee Make Two Movies This Year About Michael Jackson?

Did Spike Lee Make Two Movies This Year About Michael Jackson?

The following post contains SPOILERS for “Red Hook Summer.”

There’s this incredible montage near the end of “Bad 25” where director Spike Lee asks all of his interview subjects where they were when they heard the news that Michael Jackson had died. It’s the only scene in the film that dwells on the details of Jackson’s private life; “Bad 25” doesn’t chronicle his childhood or talk about the Jackson 5 or why he struck out on his own to try a solo career. It simply traces the origin of the “Bad’ project and then examines every single track on the record in chronological order (with one notable exception). There is absolutely no discussion of Jackson’s final decade, when his brilliance and power curdled and corroded under the burden of too much fame, controversy, and alleged misbehavior. The documentary is more a biography of a specific album than of the man who made it.

But just before Lee wraps the film up with an assessment of the record’s biggest and most poignant anthem, “Man in the Mirror,” he finally gets to the elephant in the room: Jackson’s tragic end. The interviewees’ memories are all utterly banal; one person was at their office, another heard from a doorman, a third was working on a video shoot. But then the montage continues, and one talking head after another bursts into tears. Simply reflecting back on these simple memories devastates them. These people — lawyers, personal assistants, music executives, bodyguards, sound engineers, musicians, and very famous fans — still love Michael Jackson. They know, just as we know, the allegations against him in his later years: child molestation, substance abuse, and European baby danglings. They just don’t care.

It’s a powerful moment, and it raises a complicated question: how do we reconcile great artists with their less-than-great private activities? Do a few horrible deeds outweigh and irrevocably erase many positive ones? As “Bad 25” wound down, and I was considering these ideas, I started thinking about Spike Lee’s other 2012 film, “Red Hook Summer.” And it suddenly dawned on me that while one movie is a documentary and the other is fictional, they are basically about this same thing: the measure of a troubled man’s life in the final accounting.

“Red Hook Summer” initially appears to be a coming-of-age story about a teenager named Flik (Jules Brown) who is sent by his mother to live with his grandfather Enoch (Clarke Peters) in Red Hook, Brooklyn for the summer. The first half of the film follows Flik as he acclimates to his new surroundings: meeting girls, filming stuff on his iPad, and going to the local church, where Enoch is the bishop. Several lengthy scenes involve Enoch delivering impassioned sermons to his congregation; others follow him as he leads his grandson around the neighborhood, checking in on friends and followers. It’s obvious that Enoch is a pillar of this community, respected and beloved by almost everyone he meets.

Then Lee’s story takes a turn. Enoch is not the bishop’s real name, and years earlier he had abused not only his position as a religious leader but a young boy. Now an adult, Enoch’s victim tracks him down and confronts him at his church in the middle of a Sunday service. After this intense scene, “Red Hook Summer” all but forgets about Flik to focus on Enoch and the repercussions of this revelation on his status in the community. 

When I watched “Red Hook Summer” for the first time (before I’d seen “Bad 25”) this was the moment where the film lost me. Though some individual scenes about Enoch’s struggle were interesting, they felt totally at odds with the first two-thirds of the movie, as if two entirely different screenplays had been stapled together and then filmed as a single, confused project. Enoch’s secret also seemed to conflict with the logic of “Red Hook Summer”‘s premise; what sort of mother would willingly send her son to live with a child molester? If she didn’t know her father’s secret, how did Flik’s mother find him in Brooklyn? Enoch’s living under an assumed name; wouldn’t that alone give it away? From this sequence, an already loosely assembled movie totally unraveled.

Now that I’ve seen “Bad 25,” my entire perspective on “Red Hook Summer” is shifting. Maybe it was never really intended to be a movie about a kid coming of age in Brooklyn — maybe that was just Lee’s excuse to arrive at the subject he really wanted to explore: the search for redemptive qualities in great but flawed people, and the impact these heroes’ mistakes have on the lives of others when they fall from grace. Like Michael Jackson, Enoch is a community leader and a charismatic performer (not to mention a spiritual man who gives God credit for all his successes). Like Michael (at least allegedly), he has many demons hiding in his closet. Like Michael, Enoch’s formerly vaunted place in the community is tarnished forever by these allegations (in Enoch’s case, rightfully so). Enoch constantly harangues Flik for his bad behavior, his love of sweets, and his obsession with technology, and he lectures his congregants every Sunday — all the better to avoid looking, to paraphrase Jackson, at the man in the mirror.

“Bad 25” was produced by Michael Jackson’s estate and Optimum Productions — his iconic dancing feet are their logo — and they would never have allowed Lee to ponder these sorts of questions in an officially sanctioned movie about Jackson’s work. Considered in tandem, it feels like Lee took all of the questions he had about Jackson from “Bad 25” and used them as the basis for Enoch in “Red Hook Summer.” (In interviews, Lee has said that while Jackson’s estate had “opinions” about the film, they had zero impact on the final product).

From the tone of “Bad 25” and the occasional comments you can hear from Lee himself as off-camera interviewer, it’s obvious that the director was and remains an enormous Michael Jackson fan — and his skillfully edited documentary offers an excellent illustration of the many reasons why. Nevertheless, “Bad 25” and “Red Hook Summer” would make a perfect double feature on the subject of imperfect heroes. Though “Bad 25” doesn’t cover Jackson’s controversies, you could argue that “Red Hook Summer” does in its place. Viewed together, no message could be any clearer.

Watch the one-hour TV cut of “Bad 25.” Rent “Red Hook Summer.”

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